4 Things Children Don’t Need

We’ve all seen long lists of what it takes (and what the cost might be) to raise children. Those lists can be overwhelming. And then we throw in the holiday season, with the never ending advertisements, catalogs, and shopping. We start to wonder what our children need and whether we’re actually providing those things.
4 things children don't need sq

Here are a few things I think children do NOT need:

  1. They absolutely do not need hundreds of toys that light up, play “music”, or require batteries.

  2. They do not need the latest gadget, just because you know someone else (“everyone” else?) who has one.

  3. They do not need many different pricey outfits, all color-coordinated from charming boutiques with French names.

  4. They do not need expensive “enrichment” activities every night of the week.

So, what do I think a kid might need?

– They need physical nourishment.

This means different things for different people, of course (especially around the world) but here in the U.S. it might mean lots of yummy fruits and veggies, some macaroni and cheese every now and then, some chocolate chip cookies for a treat, your favorite meal that your grandma used to make, and dinners inspired by different places around the world. It does not mean mom needs to be a short-order cook and make every child only their favorite foods every meal.

– They need classic, open-ended toys.

Wooden blocks, Legos, paper and colored pencils (markers, if you’re feeling brave), a stuffed lovey or a baby doll, and the encouragement to use their imaginations and play with anything. (Leaves for outside tea-party plates. A cardboard box can be anything. Old egg cartons and wrapping paper tubes seem to be especially prized.) They need a safe place to keep collections (buttons, rocks, leaves, shells, foreign coins, stamps, etc. Some children will try to collect all of the above.)

– They need clothes they’re allowed to get dirty.

They need an outfit or two for dressing up on special occasions (this seems to be especially important for some little girls). They need aprons to wear so they can help you in the kitchen. They need your old dresses and old hats and scarves to play dress up.

– They need time with their parents and siblings.

They need to play outside. They need to go to a zoo. They need to visit a farm (if they’re city kids) or the city (if they’re rural).  They should visit an art museum or two. They need to see a great body of water. They need to get messy. They need to go swimming. They need to walk quietly on a nature trail. They  need cuddling and tickling, joking and gentle teasing. They need to be around many different kinds, types and ages of people. They need grandparents or great-grandparents or an older family friend to spend time with.

– They need to ask questions.

They need you to teach them how to find the answers in a book or by observation, and not just by “asking Siri”. They need to hear you say, “I don’t know. Let’s find out.” They need you to say, “That’s a great question, I’m glad you asked.” They need you to ask them silly questions like “If you were an animal, what would you be?” or “If you were a color, what would you be?” or “If you could spend the night on the moon, what would you do?”

– They need to explore.

They need to climb too high. They need to swing so hard the swingset rocks. They need to poke things with sticks and lift up rocks. They need to splash in some water. They need to ride something (a bike, a horse) that intimidates them at first. They need to be out of your sight part of the day. They need to solve their own conflicts. They might need to wrestle or jump on a trampoline. They need to run until they’re out of breath. They need to try a small business like selling lemonade or something they’ve made. They need to spend their own money, sometimes unwisely. They need to give to someone less fortunate. They need to take some object apart (an old radio? a clock?) and try to put it back together.

– They need sleep.

They need to go to bed in time to be rested for the next morning. They need time with no screens flickering in their faces. They need to build a pillow fort. They might need to pitch a tent outside and sleep under the stars. They need to stay up late for a special occasion and then sleep in the next morning. They need a quiet time, when they can hear their own thoughts. They need the chance to be noisy, with drums and marching and exuberant singing (this should probably happen outside, for mom’s sanity).

– They need books.

They need adults to read to them. They need to read to each other. They need gorgeous books to admire and funny books to laugh at. They need rhymes to jingle in their minds. They need familiar characters who are just like family (Frances, Harry, Angus, Stuart Little,Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle) and historical figures who inspire (Laura and Mary Ingalls, George Washington, Florence Nightingale). They need tall tales (Paul Bunyan) and small creatures who make a big difference (Charlotte). They need to thrill over heroes and mourn over martyrs lost too soon.

So, if you’re looking at a list longer than your arm of the toys the child thinks she needs for Christmas, or you’re watching your friends buy their kids the latest gadget but your family budget won’t stretch to that this year, or you’re feeling guilty because you didn’t sign your kid up for the children’s choir so they could sing a miniature version of Handel’s Messiah while their grandparents oohed and ahhed over them…well, you have my permission to stop feeling guilty.

There are only a few things kids really need, and most of them don’t cost too much money. They may cost more of our time, or some of our sense of safety, but in the end those things may be a small price to pay.

What would you add to my list of things children need?

Favorite resources for families:
Is “simplifying” life for yourself and your children one of your goals? Check out this fantastic resource: Simplified Organization.

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  1. Roman is definitely a kid that likes to collect things.

  2. Absolutely love this, Karen! Sharing on FB and Pinterest.

  3. I love love love this article.

    I have one kid who needs space, and another who needs socializing. And three who need lots and lots of love. :)

    • Thanks, Dianna! Fantastic point there. Each kid has some specific needs as far as socializing. It takes a wise parent to remember those differences. (As an introvert myself, I find the socializing needs of one of my children in particular slightly more exhausting than my introverted children’s need for peace.)

  4. This was such a pleasure to read! It was soothing, fun and brought a smile to my face. It’s easy to buy into to the craziness of material things pushed at kids (and grownups). As I read this, I kept smiling as it reminded me of so many happy memories from my own childhood. It also encouraged me to think about the things that my kids have talked about most or enjoyed most over the last year….some of the things that you mentioned! Thank you!

    • This was a wonderful article. My husband and I are always coming up with family activities to do together without batteries, flashing lights and video games. Our son loves playing board games with us, building Lego cities, and we just introduced him to my personal favorite as a child: TinkerToys!

      Thanks for posting this. I shared on FB.

      • Board games are definitely a favorite around here (my husband is a designer. You can find his projects a http://www.phantasiogames.net/ ). I bought some Tinker Toys at the thrift store and they’ve gotten hours of play. And the tub of Lincoln Logs we bought when our oldest was a baby is still going strong. Sometimes the older toys are called classics for a reason.

        Thanks for stopping by, Tammy!

  5. Well said! They need to explore or I would phrase it as, they need to take risks. I fear that our society has removed risks from children because they want to protect them. I think it’s done the opposite. I fear we’ve endangered our children by sheltering them too much from the fear of failure. And yes, they definitely need books, too!

    • Totally agree, Kristen. As much as I hate to see my children fail or get hurt, it has to happen sometimes. It’s interesting raising some little perfectionists. They need my permission to fail, or my encouragement to try again when they fail more than they need my protection from it. It’s definitely a balance we’re always seeking.

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment!

  6. Enjoyed the list! I would add music and dance…whether it comes naturally or not. It adds depth and emotion to so many other areas of life.

  7. As some one who is just starting to plan for a family, I enjoyed this quite a bit! I think that there are still quite a few (all?) things on that list that I still need!!

  8. As an experienced educator I would like to add that it is critical that children have a stable home-life with established routines.
    When life throws them those “bumps in the road” they will always have that safe, stable, and predictable home environment to help them work through it.

  9. Children need pets – of any variety age appropriate. Pets teach kids responsibility, love, and sharing. They also need to learn to swim, ride a bike, help around the house, and manners! They need to learn to respect authority (ALL forms of authority: teachers/parents/law enforcement, etc).

  10. This is such a beautiful article Karen. I absolutely loved it. We grew up in a time when gadgets were still luxurious inventions and not play things for children.
    Children don’t need to be taught to be vain. Instead we should teachthem and guide them to responsible adults but that also means allowing them to fail so that they can learn from their mistakes.

  11. Great article, so true. Sometimes it is really difficult for new parents to see what is important and what is on the market just for the purpose to get more money from you.

  12. They need LOVE!….sincere and unconditional!

  13. I would add outdoor time. They need 3-6 (or more!) hours of outdoor play.

  14. Tracey wolf says

    I’d add music of every type. Live music thrills my children 3 and 7. We do motorbike rallies with them so lots of simple made up games/play required.

  15. Let technology blossom our children’s minds

  16. Karen I Love the article! I’m a first time mom and Elias (my son) is my only child. I try to keep him entertained without screen time, and we love our time together dancing and singing brings a lot of fun and laughters.
    He just turned 3 and have enjoyed outdoors activities, bikes, 4 wheeler, scooter, farms,… and gardening in the summer or when weather permits. Play doh, painting, and reading have always been his favorite things. The only bump I have is when I speak to him in Arabic or French he always answers back in English. Any advice or suggestions why?

  17. I love your list – I haven’t read all of the comments so I hope this is not a repeat for you but the only thing I would add is they need a responsibility. Children need to know they have something they can contribute. They long to be helpers. Give them a job and let them make mistakes. Help them learn the value of work and the value of serving others.

  18. This list quite literally warms my heart. Thank you! My only addition would be MUSIC. I think we underestimate the power of music, dancing and singing in a family or community setting. In our small urban apartment we’re big on spontaneous dance parties. I think it’s good for kids to see parents letting loose, celebrating and connecting to music.

  19. A given name that has vowels in it which won’t cause them embasrasment or subject them to ridicule from other kids.

  20. Scharese K. Friebus says

    They need a dog :)

  21. Scharese K. Friebus says

    They need a dog

  22. Thoroughly enjoyed this post and I’ll be passing it on. I would say they also need an opportunity to develop a sense of community by choosing a group to which they are committed whether it be through sports, the arts scouting, or another interest. They need someone in their lives to acknowledge their sense of wonder and spirituality and to encourage the development of these traits.

  23. They need to learn how to make decisions and how to make mistakes. They need to know that you will live if you lose a game. How to work and be satisfied with a job well done. Manners and how to speak to adults. Basic life skills like cooking, cleaning, making a phone call, budgeting.

  24. They need sport toys. Balls of all colors and sizes.

  25. Excellent article. The tips on what’s not *needed* are spot on but more so, thank you for pointing out the true need for experiences like being in nature, spending time with the elderly, and reading great books. We offer tips for how to find such opportunities (or make the most of them) on our website as part of our Big-Hearted Families™ program: http://www.doinggoodtogether.org/bigheartedfamilies/ (You’ll also find at-home and off-site volunteering opportunities and projects on our website as well.)

  26. Flashlights and hand made maps, playdough on the stove , cooking experience, participating in chores, washing the cars ( they love this!) , family bed time, campfires and A TON OF JESUS! Without centering your home around God, its all pointless anyways <3

    • Wow, you just told all of us that don’t believe in God that our lives and raising our children is pointless. Nicely done! Jeez!

  27. I’d like to add two things that kids DON’T need. Cell phones and travel leagues. Cell phones for kids under driving age seem to create many more problems than solutions. Travel leagues mean parents get to subjugate their lives to the child’s entertainment, which to me is backwards.

  28. Really love this and loved the comments, too. I would add music as well it’s really a mood changer for us. And I agree with jen who added responsibility to the list. Even the littlest members of the family can be responsible for something. It makes them feel empowered.

  29. Great article! I have one suggestion; rather than colored pencils or markers, give your kids good old fashioned crayons! Crayons take more muscle to manipulate which strengthens those small motor muscles that will be needed later for writing.

  30. For open-ended toys, I have two comments: Legos aren’t nearly as open-ended as they used to be, before they came up with the kits that keep you wanting more and more and more. The only way to go, with Legos, is to get a big pile of vintage ones, where there are plenty of blocks, windows, roof pieces, wheels, and some large platform thingies, but not much else. All the weird single-purpose pieces in modern Legos serve to make it a less open-ended toy.

    Also, with markers, I heard once (and it made sense, but I hadn’t noticed it myself), that it’s better to give your kids crayons or colored pencils, because they are pressure sensitive, so you can do more with them. With a marker, it doesn’t really matter how hard you press, it’s all the same.

  31. They need you to show them how to admit you were wrong, that you made a mistake, that you are sorry about something. They need you to model behaviour like apologizing, making amends, trying again. They need you to keep loving them just as much when they do make mistakes!

  32. Ich would like to add that children need unoccupied time. Time to be bored and come up with ideas. Time to get engrossed in their play. Time to roam their territory with the neighbours’ kid’s. Time to sit and sew cloths for their dolls. Time to write their stories down, or read a heap of books in one go. I pity those children whose schedule is packed full with swimming lessons, ballet lessons, piano lessons, and most of all driving all day from a to b to c…

  33. Children need to be appreciated when they contribute to the families daily activities.
    Age appropriate list
    Age 9 keep the bedroom picked up. Put toys, and clothes away.
    Age 10 set the table and put dishes in the dish washer and empty the dish washer.
    Age 11 Wash and dry the clothes they wear.
    Age 12 From start to finish do a simple family meal. Like mac cheese, green beans and cookies for desert.
    Our 2 children followed this outline. It was very rewarding for them to know how much we appreciated the contribution and later they discovered they were 4 steps ahead of peers when they went off to college or work and could make meals and keep a room clean and knew how to keep clothes clean.

  34. I’d add Love (as someone did above); giving them a foundation that they are loved unconditionally, and that parental love includes discipline and some rules/constraints. And for those who place their faith in God, passing on that faith and understanding of God’s unconditional love — that’s fundamental.

    Also Humility; owning up to our mistakes as parents and as people, demonstrating that we don’t always know the answers and are not always right– I feel that this is tremendously important. And I think that kids can understand this at a reasonably young age.

  35. This is a great article!
    I have a few things I think they need:

    Art supplies and encouragement around making art. There are so many awesome books out there that encourage kids to make art, but it’s so important to make time for that. And as they grow older, they need to know that it’s ok to continue making art, even if they “never make any money doing it.”

    On a related note, they need to see their parents chasing their passions. They won’t get it as a super small child, but they will get it as they grow up. They will understand that their parents are working hard to put something great in the world, whatever that may look like. They will recognize how their parents light up when they do their work or talk about their work, and they will know that this is the thing they should search for when they look for their “perfect” job.

    On another related note, they need to see that their parents have a live outside of them. This is just good role model behavior. I’m not saying ignore the kids but have things you do without the kids. To add on to reading, they need to see PARENTS and ADULTS reading for pleasure too. Then they will be much more likely to do it.

    I also think they need games.
    Board games, card games, any kind of game they can actually get their hands on. They help with decision making, dealing with mistakes, how to win and lose gracefully, strategy, critical thinking, all the things. And they are a great way to get the whole family together.

    Again, great article!

  36. you’re so right! my daughter is afraid of the light up toys that make noise and move around and are battery powered. Lucky us ;)

  37. I’d add that they need music: to sing, to play an instrument, even if it’s just a kazoo, to get some rhythm going. They need story: not just books, but story, told, explored, played with and played out. And they need spirituality, to connect with a greater power than themselves, to gaze at the world in wonder, to work out their place in it.

  38. They needs to arts…theatre, concerts etc. They need to listen to music, to dance freely. They need nature, lots of nature, a botanic gardens, camping, beach/lake….

    Great post, thanks.

  39. They need to feel the experience of having nothing. One hour of role play, no food, no games, no house, no toys, no friends. no TV,,,this is to help them to appreciate what they have, and knows how it feels to be “without”.

  40. KEITH PAYNE says


  41. Seems to me that the toys and access to the great outdoors that were available when I was little were absolutely bob on! We developed active, healthy imaginations, valued what little we had and were grateful for everything given to us through love and hard work, no matter the monetry value. Lessons in life are priceless!

  42. Vanessa Rehac says

    My only addition to the list, especially in an instant gratification world is let them make mistakes and figure out what went wrong. Learning and life is a process. And let kids take responsibility for their own decisions (oh, and you have to let them make their own decisions) and the reap rewards… or consequences as they come. Kids need to know they may not be good at everything the first time, and sometimes you have to experiment, get frustrated, try something new, practice and work hard. We can’t always “fix” everything.

    I have to say reading this brought a few wistful tears to my eyes. As a Mom of 4 grown up kids (20-27), I hope we did enough of these, we certainly tried. Life has a way of whispering “Take the easy path” and “Just this once, there is plenty of time.” But the scary thing is that there isn’t plenty of time. Every experience contributes to who they will become. What a beautifully written piece about what is important. I can say from listening to my kids now, they hardly remember the “toy” or “brand name” but they remember the silly moments, the outings, time with their grandparents feeding the birds or counting cars passing the house, they also remember the stressful times, the times when we were “too busy” or “mad all the time.” Although you can’t eliminate the not so good, completely, in the end hopefully traditions and big family breakfasts outnumber them.

    • I agree with you, Vanessa! I am also a mom of four grown children (33-44) and I really tried to be present with them, living in the moment. When dad had to put in long hours I was in the back yard playing catch with the boys, teaching them how to build a fort, ride a bike, mow he lawn, etc. I exercised with the girls, listened to music with them, tried to make chores fun, encouraged them to bake and cook. I let chores go sometimes just to sit and play board games with them. I didn’t “let” them win, but rather encouraged them to be critical thinkers–taught them strategies to help them win fair and square. Besides teaching them to practice faith and good moral values, I think my most important tip would be to see things through their eyes and to really listen to them. Not just what they say, but hear what they are NOT saying. The time spent with them is the best investment I have ever made!

  43. I completely agree!!! I’m a single mom of 3, one 13 year old girl and twin 2 year old boys. I support my children from a licensed daycare home. I make it work. It’s not easy and we do without all the fancy stuff. No smart phones, no cable TV, no video games or Gameboys. My kids have a huge wealth of sooo much more though – my time and attention throughout most of the day(even when I’m doing the dishes & laundry, I’m still in tuned), lots of outside play time, stories and books at all times during the day, music(all kinds with dancing, singing, scarves, & bubbles), all kinds of art, writing, drawing and activities, playdough and blocks, and most important listening to what it is they want to do, learn and create. My daughter sees other families, talks to friends and knows how much families who are constantly plugged in miss what their kids really do need!!! Life is short, so much going on in the world today, no guarantee of tomorrow, we need to teach our children what is MOST important in life. Thank you

  44. Kids need to be allowed to take risks (within reason).

  45. Thank you for this beautiful article! Also, perfect timing, too :)
    I wouldn’t include zoos among the things they need but everything else right on.
    Here is a list of books that I think could go along the ones you suggested:
    Me… Jane. (Jane Goodall)
    Patrick McDonnell

    enormous SMALLNESS – A story of E.E. Cummings
    Matthew Burgess

    The Iridescence of Birds – A Book About Henri Matisse
    Patricia MacLachlan

    On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein (science, open-mindness)
    Jennifer Berne

    The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau (resilience)
    Michelle Markel

    The Three Astronauts (tolerance among cultures)
    Umberto Eco

    A Seed is Sleepy (early botany)
    Dianna Aston and Sylvia Long

    Listen to the Wind
    The story of Dr. Greg and the Three cups of tea
    Greg Mortenson and Susan Roth

    If you lived here. Houses of the world (diversity)
    Giles Laroche

    The giving tree (love, self donation, loss)
    Shel Silverstein

    All the Colors of the Earth (race)
    Sheila Hamanaka

    All Families are Special
    Norma Simons

    Mama Panya’s Pancakes (Africa)
    Mary Chamberlin

    Up and down the Andes (Peru, festivals, different types of transportations)
    Laurie Krebs

  46. Dirt!

  47. I would add glue, sticky tape, paint, scissors and a box of recycling.


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